Twenty miles outside of Seattle, Washington, Wendy Wong raises funds for a little school in a remote Tibetan nomad village in western Sichuan, China. “I felt my own two children were so lucky to be born in the United States with plenty of resources and opportunities,” she says, “and I wanted to give the same chance to other kids in another part of the world.”Wendy was born in Malaysia in 1970, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, and attended college in the U.S. After graduation, she was working as a process engineer in power plant construction when, in 2007, her mother sponsored Sonam Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, to come to the U.S. to study English. Wendy says, “Through many tea sessions and dinner conversations, my husband and I had our first exposure to the rich Tibetan culture and Buddhism philosophy. At the same time we were sad to learn about the poverty, harsh conditions of the region, and challenges faced by many Tibetan children in the remote areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan.”While Wendy had no direct ties with Tibet, she felt compelled to help Rinpoche in his project to build a school to educate impoverished children in the Ganze Kham region (formerly Kham, Tibet). More than half of the children are orphans, have only one surviving parent, or have been abandoned. “We love Rinpoche’s approach of using education as a tool to help the children have better lives,” she says. So, in late 2007, Wendy gathered a group of friends and founded the Vajrayana Dharma Foundation, now called Education at Elevation (E@E).
The main goal of E@E is to support orphans and poor children at Rinpoche’s Nga Gyur Shed Dup Cho Ling school (loosely translated to “The Early Translated Dharma Teaching and Study Center”) by providing education, housing, clothing, and other basic necessities to both children and staff. E@E aims to help both boys and girls gain access to education. Wendy says that “it is particularly difficult to educate girls because the local community, as well as the girls themselves, do not believe in educating girls. It is not traditionally done in Tibetan nomadic culture.”
In order to tackle this challenge, E@E has supported Rinpoche in hiring a female teacher. Also, Wendy says, “We bought many books trying to inspire the girls to study. Later this year, we will buy sewing machines and arrange for a teacher to add sewing to the girls’ curriculum.”
Despite the challenges, Wendy and E@E have experienced many successes. Wendy recounts one such story: “I remember looking at pictures of two orphan brothers with sad scowling faces, taken before the school was built. The brothers were accepted to Nga Gyur Shed Dup Cho Ling school in 2008. I saw a total transformation when I visited the school two years later. They have big smiles, bright eyes, and are content and very happy. They now know mathematics and how to read and write Tibetan and basic Mandarin.” In fact, within six years of the school starting, the literacy rate in this tiny, remote Tibetan village had increased from less than 2 percent to 25 percent.
E@E’s successes are not confined to Tibet. Wendy describes how E@E planned a silent auction in 2011 and less than 20 people registered. “I was exhausted and all stressed out and worried. I was so close to calling off the event,” she says. But Rinpoche stepped in and suggested that Wendy “let go and be positive.” In the end, E@E raised about $7,500 from generous Seattle community members at this event—enough money to purchase eight months of dried food for all 80 students and teachers.
“At home, my mother taught me to be thankful and to appreciate what I have,” Wendy says. “I believe that compassion starts at home, then community, then the country, and the world. Peace will follow automatically once everyone understands that though we are all different, we all just want happiness.”
Wendy Wong was among the 51 men and women from around the world to be honored as an “unsung hero of compassion” on February 2014